High Priced Treasure Hunting in Truffle Season

At some 1200 euros a kilo on markets that are now in full swing across southern France, truffles might prove a better investment than money in the bank in the current environment … and certainly much tastier!

No Ma’am hardly rocks — highly sought after black gold (Credit: Mike Alexander)

Now its a moot point where the best truffles in France are found and rival regions from Saint-Alvere near Périgueux to Lalbenque in the Lot and the Vauclause in Provence, all naturally trumpet their own.

Starting before Christmas and extending to end February or mid March (depending on the region) truffle hunting neatly  coincides with the festive season and means there is a big demand  for an aromatic treasure that enhances menus across the country in early winter.

France each year produces around 1,000 tonnes, 45% of world production, of Tuber melanosporum the black Périgord truffle, with 80% coming from the south-east, according to the London based Guardian newspaper, but our writer has other figures, see below.

If you visit Provence the locals will tell you there are none better than the truffles snuffled up there  by well-trained local pigs (nowadays very rare) or more likely dogs, as Bradley B Kuett of the Provence Ventoux Blog writes: “The truffle market in the village of Richerenches in the northern Vaucluse is the largest in France, accounting for more than 50% of the supply of truffles in the region and 30% of national production. On the third Sunday of January, a Catholic mass is held in Richerenches to give thanks for the truffle and to bless the current crop.”

However Lalbenque in the south-west will pour scorn on such claims insisting the Lot does a much tastier truffle (which of course chimes well with its exotic rare saffron crop and earthy garlic harvest) as Mike Alexander, who visited Lalbenque as truffle season opened this year, found out:

The biggest truffle market in the south west of France, Lalbenque in the Lot has opened in a season that lasts until mid March. Amidst much pomp and ceremony the market kicked off to a good start with an estimated 50 kgs of truffles proudly displayed to a large crowd of eager buyers. The gendarmes were also well represented, which is not surprising when you consider that these inconspicuous looking little black members of the fungi family carry a similar value to gold.

The truffle market opens in Lalbenque with pomp and circumstance (Credit Mike Alexander)

The trufficulteurs display their wares on a long bench while buyers are held back behind a rope. At precisely two thirty the rope is dropped and the buyers leap forward to negotiate a quick deal with their chosen seller and the whole affair is over in a scrummage of about fifteen minutes. Whilst the buyer may insist on popping across to the mairie to have his purchase weighed on official scales it is not a good idea to offend the seller with anything as crass as a cheque. Here cash is the only currency.

At Lalbenque its cash only and better be quick the top Paris restauranteurs are very early birds in the lineup (Credit Mike Alexander)



Read all Mike Alexander’s gardening advice here and here

In 1937 France produced 1000 metric tonnes of truffles. A figure that is now down to 20 metric tonnes a year. The figure is bound to increase again as more and more people are planting trees inoculated with truffle spores for which there is now a government subsidy. The science of this process is becoming increasingly well understood but a newly planted oak will still take between seven and ten years to start supporting a crop. Even then there is still a possibility that for one reason or another, no truffles emerge from the seeded roots

It is extremely rare now to see truffle hunters wandering through the forest accompanied by a sow or a pig. As in other industries things have become high tech and truffle hunters now tend to use a Labrador or Teckel. The Lagotto Romagnolo or Italian water dog is the Gucci of truffle dogs and is regarded as the most prestigious, but any dog with a good nose will do. I accompanied two and a half year old Farouk, an Australian Sheep Dog, who was taking his owner out on a hunt. The dogs are trained to hunt for truffles which they will only occasionally eat. Pigs on the other hand, hunt truffles because they adore them as much as we do and this is what has seen them made redundant.  It is no mean feat to stop a pig of 150kgs from throwing a truffle down its throat, especially when the trougher gets to it before you do.

Dogs are better than pigs for truffle hunting (Credit Mike Alexander)

Truffles at the  market this year were estimated to be going from1000 euros a kilo. A price that should rise to around 3900 euros per kilo by the time it hits the Paris retail market. If you are thinking of making a quick buck in a run up to Paris with a bag of truffles tucked under you arm you might need to think again.  There are two types of local truffle, only one of which achieves these astronomical prices and there are also very similar looking imposter truffles from places as far afield as China that are of little value. Unless you know your business you could find yourself seriously out of pocket.

In addition make sure you’ve got some legal proof of ownership. As prices rise armed gendarmes are keeping a sharp look out for truffle thieves and vehicle searches are frequent.

Story: Mike Alexander


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